Notes From Underground: Back-Alley Nutrition Provider

“So what you’re saying is that we’ll either wind up having the best meal of our lives or spend the next week in hospital with listeria,” said Mrs Prick as our Silver Service snaked its way through the back streets of a nearby artsy suburb that has lately sprung up more high rise construction sites than the Singapore skyline.

“Yep, pretty much,” I replied.

As it turned out – spoiler alert – we got neither.

What we Pricks did get, in the company of some friends well-connected enough to get invites to this sort of thing, was an evening in one of Sydney’s “underground” restaurants, one of those places where for the love of food and perhaps a few bucks enterprising chefs throw regulations, permits, and an award-wage structure more Byzantine and half as cheery as the collected works of Stieg Larsson to the wind and say, Hey, let’s put on a show!

Set up in what could loosely be called an “art space” (no further identifying details, this is just the sort of thing that Clover Moore would love to go the full Waco over), this eat-easy was nothing fancier than a room cleared out to make way for a bunch of communal plywood tables and, in a corner, a full-on little industrial kitchen staffed by a team of hipster-y looking types quietly going about their work, stopping occasionally to clear the steam from their chunky black glasses.

And what were they working on? Lots of things. Some lovely roast peppers and a bowl of cavolo nero with white beans. Some sliced veal rump with an anchovy mayo and capers: a saltier twist on tonnato, we wanted more. Creamy polenta with wild mushrooms, and here a note of thanks to the fungi foragers on the hand-written menu gave us our only pause. Thankfully the mushrooms, though wild and apparently scooped up off some mate’s country property, were fine and things did not wind up like that tragic dinner party in Canberra last year. Far from it, the mushrooms were perfectly safe and delicious and as we waited for the next course we were treated to an entertaining show as a parade of cute little pink polka-dot dinosaurs and elephants marched across the table.

A main course of goat, braised and shredded, was peppery and more-ish, not goaty at all but with a disappointingly watery sauce (lovely roast carrots, though). Chocolate semifreddo rounded out the menu, accompanied by tart wedges of citrus that everyone devoured but which I found too much.  

The food was good, hits and misses, great value at $50 a head but very family-style (“keep your cutlery for the next course!). Los Angeles’ Wolvesmouth this was not (and, incidentally, hit that link for some of the wankiest food writing this site has ever seen: the chef’s origin myth is a set piece of spectacularly over-done prose in and of itself, made the more hilariously painful as the author’s self-regard practically drips off the screen).  

But of course the evening was about more than just the food. While normally this site takes the stance that “the personal is political” is one of the most destructive notions to come down the pike this side of the Hegelian dialectic (in a healthy society politics should recede and let people get on with their own choices and their own lives), there is something not just a little a bit political about the very act of setting up an underground restaurant. It is a deeply liberating idea, and one which runs against the present tide which sees the state being ever more the intermediary for everyday activities.

A year or so ago there was a meme going around Facebook which basically said that if you don’t like taxation and regulation you may as well move to Somalia, because were it not for the loving embrace of the government indexed to inflation plus three per cent, the country would quickly descend into a Hobbesian hell where life is nasty, brutish and short.

Not necessarily: Without any health inspectors, without any council approval processes, without complicated wage regulations, without occupational health and safety checks, without any of the dead weight of the state, this place, this team, served up good, healthy, honest food for an honest price. Civil society solves a lot of problems, and when individuals – as opposed to governments – make mistakes, the errors can be corrected quickly, rather than set in regulatory concrete.

Whether or not anyone else came away with this lesson is anyone’s guess; the relationship between citizen and state may just be this particular Prick’s obsession. Still, it would be nice to think that underground restaurants, as with the push for gay marriage, represent a broader scepticism about the state among the rising generations.

Just as likely, though, these will only form the friendlier facets of the rise of what American thinker James Poulos calls the “pink police state”, in which people are “apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people.”

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5 Responses to Notes From Underground: Back-Alley Nutrition Provider

  1. Mike Farrell says:

    So you’ve gone from being a Libertarian and turned into an Anarchist. Who’d have thunk. Some people will do anything for food.

  2. Hoddle Boulevard says:

    A Libertarian is just a Conservative with a bong!

    Seriously though, things taste better when they’re illegal or a bit under the counter.
    That’s the whole point. Our senses experience a different type of anticipation when the product is contraband, especially with the threat of some nanny on the public teat about to close it down because someone brought peanut butter sandwiches or something.

    Hence the pop-up-hidden-laneway-in-the-badlands-phenomenon probably being a reflection of the mindless regulation controlling these age old concepts such as a simple meal by the side of the road.

  3. TimT says:

    If it’s listeria you’re after, I’m planning on doing a little cheesemaking tomorrow, and could whip you up a batch of freshly-curdled bacterial infection. Sound good?

  4. bobby b says:

    Your dinner shows us how “big-buck” restauranting can police itself in all of the ways we would normally look to regulation and inspection to ensure standards, but that’s because the “big-buck” aspect makes such self-discipline worthwhile.

    Doesn’t work for cheap, low-margin feedings.

    So, we penalize the one so that we can pay to inspect the other.

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